Once considered essentially a problem of the United States, cocaine addiction is now threatening to become a major social scourge throughout Western Europe as well. ``Other nations once believed that their own people would remain free of the drug blight that has affected our country for too long,'' US Attorney General Edwin Messe said during a recent trip abroad aimed at stimulating international cooperation. ``That view of the world has changed.''
A great menace to Western European society is now believed to be cocaine, although other drugs still represent a major challenge. Cocaine use has spread rapidly from the jet-set rich to the caf'es and discotheques frequented by the young.
``Unless we take very clear action very soon, we'll be in the same boat as the Americans within the next 10 years,'' says Sir Jack Stewart Clark, who is compiling a report on drug abuse in Western Europe for the European Parliament.
There are 3 to 4 million regular cocaine users in the US today. That number is ``not unbelievable'' for the European Community by the mid-1990s, he says. His fears are justified by the following:
Cocaine confiscation increased in Western Europe last year -- 1,183 pounds were seized. Although this is a fraction of the total amount seized worldwide (36,220 pounds in 1985), it is something new for Europe.
Cocaine consumption is now believed to be rising by up to 50 percent a year in many European countries.
Cocaine trafficking in Spain has doubled every couple of years since the mid-1970s. Much of Europe's cocaine originates in South America and travels through Spain to Europe. There are between 60,000 and 80,000 cocaine users in Spain. Their numbers are increasing.
Cocaine prices have fallen dramatically in recent years. This has made it accessible to more -- and younger -- people in virtually every stratum of society.
Nor is the problem confined to the indigenous population. So concerned is the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) about the threat of drugs to American children attending US schools in Western Europe that it recently held a two-day conference in Brussels, focusing on cocaine, for administrators and teachers.
The keynote speaker at this first-ever event was John C. Lawn, head of the DEA. He said that he had come to Brussels in order to highlight the seriousness of the problem.
Stanley Furce, a DEA representative based in Brussels who helped organize the conference said, ``We really don't know how much cocaine there is in Europe. But we do know it's readily available to any American child who wants it.''
There is alarming new evidence of growing links between drug traffickers and organized crime. This includes illegal arms trafficking as well as an increased Mafia involvement in the international drug racket, says Giovanni Falcone, the investigating magistrate in the trial of 467 suspected Mafia members which is now taking place in Sicily.
Like others concerned with the issue, he says international cooperation is essential in stemming the drug tide in Europe. He cited an agreement signed between Italy and Britain, which makes drug-traficking an offense subject to mutual extradition, as a good example. ``It's going to be a long road. But governments are beginning to acknowledge the urgency of the drug problem here. And progress is being made -- although too slowly.''